The Northeast corner of the United States can be a very tough area to hunt deer. With so much contiguous forest it can be tough for a hunter to begin finding and identifying sign and searching out deer with many tracts of land ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands of acres broken up only by logging roads. Many deer will spend their entire life within these forested tracts of land without ever seeing agricultural fields and foodplots.
When seeking out deer you generally look for three things, FOOD, WATER and COVER. In many of these large forested tracts there is water basically everywhere. Small streams and swamps seem to never be more than several hundred yards away. The woods are thick and virtually every square inch is cover. When deer look for cover in the big woods they are seeking cover which will protect from them from the elements and predators. These big woods deer will eat just about anything because food sources aren’t generally found in abundance like in agricultural fields or the urban landscapes we plant.
With this being said, when looking for a starting point to find and identify sign, first and foremost seek a large water source. By large I mean not your typical mountain stream that you can jump over, but a water source that is fed by multiple small tributaries creating open swamp and flooded areas where different forest types meet. The area surrounding a large water source will generally have a greater diversity of food and cover options available to a deer.
Cover is something that is naturally created by the forest transition from higher elevations to low areas where a large water source is found. When deer in these areas seek cover, they are looking for an area to protect them mostly from the elements but also from predators. These low lying areas offer protection from wind and cold and are often very thick with growth allowing deer to hear approaching predators.
Food is something that a big woods deer must work hard to get. These deer need to eat many different types of browse in order to receive the proper nutrition needed to survive. A large water source creates the type of habitat where upland hardwood trees meet lowland softwoods combined with open swamp. Where the fringes of these different forest types all converge naturally hold deer. The diversity of food near these water sources allows deer to receive the nutrition needed within a reasonably small area compared to the size of the woods as whole.
Once you locate an area which has the large water source with a good forest transition from hardwoods to softwoods you can narrow that area by walking the most defined edges of cover type to look for deer runs. Due to the low nutritional value of the food and lack of any food being found in abundance, these deer travel A LOT. This is where identifying well traveled deer runs come into play. Many deer runs will parallel edges of different forest types. A key feature to look for is where defined deer runs distinctly cross from one forest type to another rather than parallel to the edge. These defined “crossings” are often due to topography and water crossings which essentially force game to cross one specific area. These “crossings” are key travel routes and generally offer a hunter the most opportunities at multiple animals.